Philosophy prof gets money from Historical Society to play with Legos, proving that history matters

As my friend BJ would say: Stop the madness! According to a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press today there’s a philosophy professor building models of the Minnesota Capitol and the St. Paul Cathedral out of Legos. It is not surprising that the newspaper puts this story on the front page of its feature section. After all it is always interesting when someone does something out of the ordinary. I would expect a similar story if, say, chimpanzees at the Minnesota Zoo were publishing a daily newspaper. You would expect a full report from the Pioneer Press discussing the chimpanzee view of what it meant to be journalists.

What takes the cake is the report that the Minnesota Historical Society, along with the Cathedral Heritage Foundation, is helping pay for the purchase of more than $1,500-worth of Lego blocks. It is always possible, of course, that the involvement of the Historical Society is minimal. But one dollar spent in support of this project is too much. It seems to me that this philosophy professor should be paying the Historical Society to allow him to even mention its name along with what he is doing. He should have to pay the Society $1,500 for its endorsement. As mentioned before the Historical Society has been selling “History Matters” chocolate bars. It is time the Society endorsed hot dish pans, oven mitts, canoe paddles, fish descalers, and maybe even Lego sets depicting the 1851 Traverse des Sioux Treaty site.

Of course if this philosophy professor shifted to toothpicks I would be in full support of his project. Building things out of toothpicks truly is a lost art, and it involves real skill. In the interview in the Pioneer Press the philosopy professor was asked if what he is doing is art. In response he stated that his Lego models are not art, “they are models of art.” One should add that they are not history or even models of history, that is, unless some frustrated and berserk historian goes over there with his official “History Matters” sledge hammer and smashes the damn things and tosses them in the “dustbin of history,” (metaphorically speaking, of course).


Philosophy prof gets money from Historical Society to play with Legos, proving that history matters — 5 Comments

  1. A “philosopher” who states, “I don’t worry about the good life or the meaning of life or how to be a moral person.” either has a Lego for a brain or is pulling our Lego.

  2. I think he may have been saying that he didn’t think about those things when he was doing Legos. For him Legos are a great way to escape. But even that doesn’t speak well for him. But this makes me wonder about what Jean-Paul Sartre thought about when he used his YoYo–I read somewhere that Sartre was caught up in the YoYo craze of the 1930s. Looking online just now I found a letter from Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, dated March 12, 1940, in which he said: “Remember my manic passion for the yoyo?” I guess he was over it by then. Anyway, I’m sure that he did think about the meaning of human existence as he saw the YoYo going up and down, though maybe not about how to be a moral person. By the way, I remember when I was a kid going into a 7-11 store in the state of Virginia where we were living then and seeing this guy from the Duncan YoYo company giving demonstrations of all the tricks you could do with YoYos, as a way of encouraging kids to buy these really fancy YoYos. I bought a white YoYo flecked with green and gold and tried to practice but could hever get it going more than a few times. One of the Smothers Brothers was a YoYo fiend.

  3. I thought I would chime in with a couple of comments and clarifications.

    First off, of course the LEGO models are not ‘history’. I don’t think that they were intended to be, by either myself or the two organizations that asked me to build them. Instead, they are meant to be tools for promoting the history of these two buildings – that is, they are part of larger promotional efforts to raise awareness of the unique architecture and history of these two buildings. I presume that you don’t complain about the funds spent on other, more traditional promotional materials such as advertisements, flyers, etc. Why is it such a big deal when these organizations attempt some slightly more creative methods for raising awareness and appreciation of the history of these two buildings?

    Second, you suggest that I should pay the Minnesota Historical Society (and, I assume, the St Paul Cathedral) for their endorsement of my model. To rebut this, I will point out, first, that I am donating hundreds of man hours, and small portions of my own LEGO collection, in order complete these models. Second, I have an official association with The LEGO Group (as a LEGO ambassador), and that fact has been used prominently in promotional materials for events where these models have been and will be displayed. All in all, I think everyone is getting a fair shake.

    Finally, the quotation about my not worrying about the good life or being moral was taken a bit out of context. I was, at that point in the interview, explaining what areas of philosophy I work in. I don’t work in moral or political philosophy (hence the comment), but instead specialize in philosophy of mathematics and logic. Naturally, I do worry a good bit about being a good person in my everyday conduct.


    Roy T Cook

    PS: The unfinished model of the Capitol was displayed at the open house at the St Paul Cathedral this past Sunday, and was a hit with both adults and children. In particular, it generated a lot of questions about the building itself, and a member of the Historical Society staff was on hand to answer these questions and distribute additional promotional materials. So, on its first test run, the models do seem to be doing the job for which they were designed.

  4. Thank you for that great comment. This is exactly the kind of discussion that I was hoping this website would generate. I agree with you that your comment about what you think about when you make your models was taken out of context. As for the remark saying that you should pay the historical society, I think that was as far as that suggestion was supposed to go. The Cathedral Heritage Society can do what it wants to do. Many of us, however, who work hard a the drudgery of historical research are concerned about how the historical society spends its money. As you may have seen in several other pieces here, we’re concerned that the historical society compromises history by trying to appeal exclusively to a popular audience, forgetting its original mission. Of course when I worked there we tried to do that too, but there is a need for balance. I can’t say that everyone will agree with what you say, but thanks for making such a good case for your work!

  5. It’s embarrassing to be wrong in public. I’m sorry for the cheap shot and the cheaper puns. I do admire how elegantly and politely I have been corrected twice. Thank you both.

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